By Megan Dooley
Jake Meeks is moving up fast in the political world. Just last September, he offered his services as a volunteer for the Illinois Democratic Coordinated Campaign. He put in so much time and effort supporting candidates Pat Quinn, Alexi Giannoulias, and Lisa Madigan that he was soon made an intern. He moved on to intern for the Rahm Emanuel mayoral campaign, and eventually shifted to Ameya Pawar's campaign for alderman of the 47th Ward in the North Side neighborhoods of Ravenswood and Lakeview. He worked as a field organizer, responsible for helping coordinate volunteers and organize events, among other things.
Oh, and he's only 15; a freshman at Oak Park and River Forest High School.
"I had been interested in politics for years," said Meeks. "I am very much a political junkie."
When he finally did get involved, he didn't waste any time in taking on new challenges. "It was actually kind of an interesting transition, because within five months I had gone from volunteer, to intern, to field organizer," said Meeks.
Pawar, at only 30-years-old, was a young candidate and considered a long shot for victory in the 47th Ward. Perhaps that's what attracted Meeks to his campaign in the first place. Meeks was actively looking for a candidate to attach himself to, and Pawar perfectly fit the bill. "I was looking for people who I thought matched me ideologically...when I saw his website, I e-mailed him right away," Meeks said.
He said he was inspired by a Gandhi quotation that was a favorite of his mother's: "Be the change that you want to see in the world." In fact, much of his inspiration came from his family, whom he described as "very socially active."
As the campaign drew on, his respect for Pawar only deepened. "This guy was very much interested in, not being a politician, but being a public servant," Meeks said. That closely mirrored his own dreams of using political status to help people.
Meeks described Pawar as being profoundly knowledgeable, interesting, composed, and an excellent listener. "If he wasn't going to be alderman in the 47th Ward, I think Amaya could be a professional best friend," Meeks said.
The campaign started out slowly, and before Pawar gained momentum as a candidate, the young politician spent a good deal of time driving around with his director of policy and Meeks, spreading the word door to door. One night, Pawar took the trio bowling to cap off a night of campaigning.
"Almost every time I saw him was a highlight," said Meeks of his especially memorable experiences on the campaign trail. "Every single time, it was interesting. [Amaya is] just such an optimistic person. Even before the incumbent dropped out and the prospects seemed dismal, he was so optimistic about thinking that so many people were ready for change, and something new."
He was right. Meeks points to Pawar's endorsement by the Chicago Sun-Times as the turning point in an unlikely campaign. "All this stuff started happening and we had to move with it," he said. "It was like we went viral."
With the shift, Meeks' responsibilities took a turn. There wasn't as much time to go door to door. There would be no more bowling. "But we still talked, even though it was crazy," said Meeks, of his interaction with Pawar. Which was unusual in itself. "I still had frequent conversations with Amaya. For a 15-year-old involved in politics and an alderman race in Chicago, you didn't get to talk to the candidates," he said.
The rest, as they say, is history. Meeks eventually saw his long shot political champion elected alderman of the 47th Ward. He learned that it doesn't take a bundle of money or a big name to make a difference. "You kind of just need someone talking common sense," Meeks said.
It gave the 15-year-old high school freshman a sense of hope about what's to come. "It really made me more positive of the outlook of politics in the future." Meeks said.
And for his own role in them, whatever that may be. Meeks said he jokes with his friends, sometimes, that it might be nice to be president someday. But in truth, he considers the role less important than individual actions. "For me, I like to think that it's not so much the title, it's what you're able to do with it. I think positive change on any level is still moving forward," he said.
Meeks will probably need to finish high school before he runs for office himself, but that shouldn't put a damper on his political contribution. "My big thing right now is youth involvement. I think that's something we take for granted," he said. "There's a lot to be done everywhere. And so I'd just like to help wherever I can, as best I can, as much as I am needed."